Green-Thumb Therapy : Mentally Retarded to Plant Community Garden That Will Beautify Barren Site

Times Staff Writer

They stretch for miles, with no greenery to soften the glare of sunlight off silvery electrical towers, prolific brown weeds and broken glass.

But this fall a group of mentally retarded people, some with physical handicaps as well, will plant a garden on more than an acre of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's 2 1/2 miles of vacant right-of-way property in North Hollywood.

The specially designed garden, to be planted on Whitnall Highway under DWP power lines, is intended to spruce up the community and provide therapy for the 32 mentally retarded clients of VISTAS, a nonprofit program for mentally handicapped people with emotional problems, said Kathleen Lynch, executive director of the Panorama City-based organization.

Cultivate Plots

The group will invite non-handicapped residents of the area to cultivate plots on the property in January, she said.

The garden project was hailed by city officials and community activists as an ideal way to get the blight-ridden neighborhoods near Whitnall Highway to blossom. And DWP officials said the project will offer insights into what to do with the largely vacant, trash-strewn land under their power lines in North Hollywood.

"We've tried this kind of thing with other organizations and found that after a few months, people walk away from it," said Lee Moussafir, DWP's chief real estate officer. "But these folks seem like they're really trying to accomplish a purpose."

Moussafir said the department rents much of the 1,500 miles of rights of way it owns in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties to nurseries and other businesses for about $1,200 annually per acre. But he said the agency has had difficulty leasing vacant rights of way in North Hollywood because growers and other tenants apparently fear their plants and goods will be stolen.

The DWP would rather rent the land than keep it vacant because of soaring maintenance costs, Moussafir said. "It's hard to keep up with the demand," he said. "We get a call from one location to remove a sofa, and the next week, we get another call about some other trash at the same site."

Under its arrangement with VISTAS, the department will issue a license to the University of California's extension service to run the garden for two years on a trial basis, Moussafir said. The university's federally funded Common Ground Urban Gardens program, which teaches low-income groups, the elderly and youths to grow their own food, will maintain the property and train VISTAS staff members and clientele in gardening skills, he said.

The project will cost about $54,000, in part because of special features such as 2-foot-high raised beds to make it easier for those with cerebral palsy to dig in the dirt, said Sherl Hopkins, demonstration projects coordinator for Common Ground.

The Kaiser-Permanente Community Service Program has donated $5,000 to VISTAS for the program, and the rest is being funded by the state and federal governments, Lynch said.

11 Weeks of Training

Two VISTAS staff members have already received 11 weeks of training from Common Ground. Since June, they have been running a small version of the North Hollywood garden project at the Sepulveda Garden Center, a community garden run by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks at Hayvenhurst Avenue and Magnolia Boulevard.

"It's making a tremendous difference already," Lynch said. "One of our autistic clients had been afraid to do anything and would never get his hands dirty. But ever since he's been working in the garden, seeing he can make tomato plants grow, he's become so much more open and talkative."

Moussafir said the department will consider allowing other community activists to use the vacant rights of ways. Kurt Hunter, president of the North Hollywood Residents Assn., said the vacant property represents "an incredible opportunity" to transform power line routes in North Hollywood from barren urban scars into parkland.

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